The Japanese train/metro system
I’ve stated before that the Japanese transportation system can be confusing for a novice, but I must confess that a mere 24 hours into my trip I was successfully navigating Tokyo, even when my smartphone battery died. I’ll use this opportunity to explore some differences and idiosyncrasies I’ve noticed along the way:
- Trains come exactly on time. I only saw a train being late once during the trip. (Another time, I thought a train came late and was entertained by the thought of “catching” this failure, but it turned out that I simply boarded the wrong train. Lesson learned: a train coming in at a slightly unexpected time is a sure sign of a mix-up on my end.)
- The trains stop at finely-tuned, predetermined locations along the tracks. This is done manually by the train drivers. Incidentally, there are markings on the floor along which people queue in lines to get on board. To illustrate the difference I’ll use two images from Google:
- Japanese queue for the train:
- Rest of the world in comparison:
- Japanese queue for the train:
- The Shinkansen: also known as the “bullet trains”, they are the fastest trains in the world and act like it. The ride is very pleasant – a quiet and smooth experience. On the inside, they feel like a roomy plane: folding tables, plenty of luggage space, a service person moving a cart along the corridor and selling products… You can reserve a ticket in advance, or try your luck in the unreserved carts which operate on a first come, first served basis.
With a maximum speed of 603 km/h (the max operating speed is only half that) and a minimum headway of three minutes between trains, it is no wonder these babies are renowned around the world.
[image taken from Wikipedia]
- In the last two decades, Japanese railway companies introduced women only cars. This is unfortunately required, seeing as:
Groping in crowded commuter trains has been a problem in Japan: according to a survey conducted by Tokyo Metropolitan Police and East Japan Railway Company, two-thirds of female passengers in their 20s and 30s reported that they had been groped on trains, and the majority had been victimized frequently. Authorities have been unable to stop groping, as trains are too crowded to identify and catch the perpetrators, which would later escape; courts have traditionally been lenient, and victims are often too ashamed to come forward. The police and railway companies responded with poster campaigns to raise awareness and with tougher sentences, but have been unable to reverse the trend. In 2004, the Tokyo police reported a threefold increase in reported cases of groping on public transportation over eight years.
It is worth noting that compliance with the “women only” rule is voluntary from a legal perspective, and is only socially enforced.
- Trains end early: they stop between 12 midnight and 1 am. This has many social effects that can be read about here.
- Transportation is expensive. A Japan Rail Pass costs 375$ for 14 days per person. It’s even more expensive if you don’t get the pass and travel around as much as I did.
- Small stuff:
- Train melodies: trains play different tunes for departing and arriving, arranged to invoke a feeling of alertness (ominous sounds) or relief (Disney-esqe sounds), as required by the situation. In my opinion this is brilliant, and very Japanese.
- Train seats can change directions. I’ve never seen this before and it blew my mind. So simple and elegant:
Nikko: first encounter with autumn colors
Nikko is a national park outside of Tokyo that’s been a place of worship for the Buddhist and Shinto religions for many centuries. Walking around one can visit many temples and mausoleums, the most famous of which belong to the Tokugawa dynasty – the last shogunate established in ~1600. It was here that I learned that the leader and eventual Shogun I’ve known as “Toranaga-sama” from the book Shogun, was actually named Ieyasu in real life – a misunderstanding that had me confused for a while.
I was lucky to be in Japan at the very peak of autumn colors season, and it is evident from the pictures in my extended album that I was more captured that day by the colors than by the architecture.
At the time I was there, the main temple Toshogu was covered by scaffolding, so here’s a Google picture of what I missed:
Shinjuku and Robot Restaurant
My final (planned) evening in Tokyo was spent in the company of the few friends I’ve met so far on the trip: Gleb, Merrissa (an Australian chef who rushed through Nikko with me) and a couple of Australian girls I’ve met through the couch-surfing website and were bus-touring Japan. At the recommendation of friends that have visited Tokyo previously, I convinced my fellow travelers to meet for dinner and a show at the famous Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku.
Shinjuku Station is the world’s busiest railway station, handling more than two million passengers every day. West of the station is the skyscraper district while to the northeast lies Japan’s largest and wildest red light district.
Walking through the red light district on my way to the show I snapped a few photos and quickly learned through experience that the place was full of African crooks trying to drug-mug tourists, and was actually famous for it. Every 100 meters a different African, shady looking guy with perfect English would initiate a conversation with me on the street, offering a chance to meet the local girls, show me the best clubs, or hook me up with some cocaine. Needless to say I said no to every offer, but the deal is that once you get inside their establishments, the girls want you to buy them drinks that cost ridiculous amounts of money (though sometimes will also throw in a discreet happy ending) and at some point you’ll be drugged, your credit card will be abused and you’ll wake up 14 hours later, thinking you had the best night ever. For a detailed, step by step guide on how to get royally fucked in Shinjuku I direct you to this article.
A crowd reacting to a street magic show:
Meeting up at the restaurant we saw a huge line of people queuing outside in the hope of getting last minute tickets (we ordered in advance). Looking at the crowd it was obvious this was a show for tourists.
Once admitted to the establishment it was apparent that a huge amount of money and consideration were put into the decor. Every room, hall and staircase were covered floor to ceiling with psychedelic patterns of neon lights and color. Our eyes couldn’t find a place to rest (The following images are not my own):
We were led to a waiting lounge that looked like this:
With a band playing smooth Japanese tunes that looked like this:
We drank a couple of beers and talked to new people, until an announcement informed us that the show was about to start, and we went to another room to take our seats:
The show is definitely not for everyone. If you’re not into video games at all, feel uncomfortable watching Japanese dancers perform right next to you in skimpy costumes (something between cheer leading and hooters… yes, at some points it was awkward), or get headaches easily – there are better places for you.
What followed felt more like Japanese video game animations than a show that could happen in real life. An explosion of lights and sound, humans and robots, lasers and food, huge props, boss fights, and overwhelming energy. All in a such a small space and close enough to touch. When it was finished I found myself tired. I don’t remember the food.
Japan day 2: Tokyo [Imperial Palace, Yoyogi park, Shibuya] (You are here)
Japan day 3: trains, Nikko and Robot Restaurant (You are here)
Japan days 4, 5: Fuji Q Highland, Fuji Five Lakes